I received a circular email message yesterday from ObamaForAmerica, inviting me to sign up for a twelve-week course preparing me to be a paid worker in the Obama presidential campaign. The election is eleven months away and Obama is already cranking up his ground game. I should perhaps explain the origin and meaning of that phrase for my readers from overseas. “Ground game” is a term of art from American football. Anyone who has watched an American football game on television is familiar with the “aerial game,” those dramatic moments when a wide receiver races thirty yards down field and plucks a football from the sky thrown with impossible accuracy by a quarterback standing behind the line of scrimmage. But serious fans and old pros will tell you that professional football games are won or lost in the trenches, a strip of turf three yards on either side of the line, where 350 pound behemoths [and that is before they put on their equipment] push and shove to open up slits of daylight through which a halfback can scoot for three, four, or five yards. That is “the ground game.”
The metaphor captures quite nicely the two components of a presidential campaign. The aerial game is the high profile speeches, debates, and tv ads on which the media commentators lavish their attention. But in a nation that can only lure a bit more than half of the eligible voters to the polls in a presidential year, and scarcely more than a third in an off year, elections are won and lost in the neighborhoods where volunteers and paid workers walk the streets, ringing doorbells, handing out literature, and registering citizens to vote. In 2008, Barack Obama and his team ran the most brilliant ground game in the modern history of American politics. Op Ed writers pontificated about Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, the Philadelphia speech about race, and the debate performances, while almost unnoticed, tens of thousands of campaign workers were registering new voters and cajoling nominal Democrats to make the short trip to their local voting places.
In the summer of 2008, shortly after retiring and moving with Susie to
The Chapel Hill campaign was run by two young paid organizers, whose responsibility extended to all of
The second stage was devoted to a combination of information-gathering and persuasion. Each day, the headquarters in
Each evening, the information collected would be entered into the campaign data program. The next day, a new set of lists and maps would arrive by email, taking into account the data that had been entered the previous evening. In that way, we never wasted time searching for a voter who had already been canvassed, unless that person was listed as “uncertain,” in which we case we would go back after a while to try to persuade him or her to vote for Obama.
The final stage of the ground game was the get out the vote effort. As soon as early voting began, we would go out,, visiting the homes of people who had been identified by previous visits as Obama supporters, giving them information cards on voting times and places. Other volunteers manned desks at the voting places and kept track of who was voting, so that we would not try to reach someone who had already voted.
This story was repeated in cities and towns in all fifty states. As the campaign progressed, David Plouffe and his team, in Chicago, would evaluate the costs and benefits, and decide how to shift their paid workers into states that looked promising or out of states that looked lost [the winner take all rules of American politics make it a waste of time to mine lodes of supporters in states that are overwhelmingly for one’s opponent.]
When commentators allude in passing to a candidate’s “ground game,” some version of this operation is what they are talking about. The email I received tells me that the Obama ground game is shifting into gear. None of the Republican candidates has any sort of ground game whatsoever, save perhaps in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the man who is looking more and more likely to win the Republican nomination, Newt Gingrich, has never exhibited the slightest talent or patience for the organizational tasks required to create an effective ground game. This is why I am guardedly optimistic, even in a year when the republicans ought to be able to win the White House.